Crowded classrooms will delay new development in Ellicott City and Elkridge, based on the latest school enrollment projections used to regulate Howard County growth.
The projected crowding will trigger delays in planning for new homes in the redeveloping U.S. 1 corridor until two new schools and an addition are built. A new 600-seat elementary school and a 97-seat addition at Bellows Spring Elementary are to open in the northeast region by 2013, with a new middle school by 2015.
The county has not acquired sites for either new school in the crowded eastern part of the county.
The situation dismays developers, bolsters the argument of Elkridge residents pushing for infrastructure improvements and frustrates county officials trying to plan for growth only to see things change radically from year to year with swings in the economy.
Two years ago, no Howard elementary or middle schools were above the threshold for crowding written into the county's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance. This year, eight elementary schools and two middle schools are projected to be above 115 percent of capacity in 2013, though Phelps Luck, Manor Woods and Atholton elementaries would not be "closed" to development that year, because potential solutions are available. A 150-seat addition and renovation under way at Northfield Elementary in Ellicott City and an addition at Waverly Elementary could relieve some of that pressure, school planners said.
Muddling the picture, four of the six elementary schools on the school crowding "closed" list in last year's charts for 2012 dropped off this year. Last year, no middle schools were over the 115 percent of capacity threshold. This year, Elkridge Landing and Ellicott Mills Middle are enough over the limit to push the entire northeast region over the threshold for 2013.
"We definitely have to get moving on that middle school," said Joel Gallihue, manager of school planning.
Crowding has shifted from the western part of the county to the east, leaving the western schools, including several built within the past decade, far below capacity. Elkridge Elementary is projected to be the county's most crowded school in three years, at 131 percent of capacity with 1,021 students. The school board owns a middle school site near Turf Valley, in western Ellicott City, that is not immediately needed, but has no site in Elkridge.
"The population continues to grow," said County Council Chairwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat who represents both affected areas. "We've got to get in there and get [school] sites acquired."
She recalled that she began her public life more than a decade ago as a parent pushing for more schools in Ellicott City.
Since then, Bellows Spring and Veterans Elementary have added more than 1,500 seats, but the demand keeps growing.
County Executive Ken Ulman said school officials need "a bit more sense of urgency" in finding sites. In the "big picture," he said, young families moving to older areas such as Elkridge is healthy for the county.
School officials say they are doing all they can to find land for school sites.
"That's a high priority on our list," said school board Chairwoman Ellen Flynn Giles. "We can't manufacture a site."
Howard schools Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin said, "We are in the process of looking at sites right now." He noted that the long-developed U.S. 1 corridor is a tough place to find enough land for a school.
"Obviously, [the projected crowding is] going to have a long-term effect," said Steve Breeden, a partner in Security Development, an Ellicott City firm that recently completed a 186-unit apartment complex called Penniman Park in the northeastern sector.
Howard Johnson, president of the Greater Elkridge Community Association, said the projection, in a way, is good news for residents worried about growing congestion.
"It sounds like this will at least slow things down until these things get off the ground," Johnson said of plans for new schools, a community center and regional park, a new volunteer firehouse and an expanded library. And he said it lends support to the community's hopes for a new high school in Elkridge.
Meanwhile, county officials hope that new workers brought to the Fort Meade area as part of the military's Base Realignment and Closure process and those at the new cybersecurity command at the National Security Agency will buy homes in Elkridge and the U.S. 1 corridor.
Development slowdowns "are not good news," said Richard W. Story, CEO of the county's Economic Development Authority.
But county planning director Marsha McLaughlin said there is a large enough supply of homes for now.
"By virtue of the recession, people have to sell existing homes," she said, and there's more in the development pipeline that are far enough along to be eligible for construction despite growth controls.
Johnson said five homes are for sale on his street alone.